U.S. President Joe Biden has said the world is at an “inflection point” in a “battle between democracy and autocracy.” Biden maintains that the United States’ free-market, democratic system can continue to deliver, but others suspect that China’s autocratic, state-led capitalist model may be superior.
Which side is correct?
To find an answer, we can ask one of history’s most influential political philosophers: Niccolò Machiavelli. For readers familiar with Machiavelli only through The Prince, his response might come as a surprise.
The Prince is a guidebook for dictators, but his arguably greater work, Discourses on Livy, is a full-throated defense of democracy. Machiavelli’s introduction to The Prince suggests that he had started Discourses before The Prince was hastily written in 1513 and then returned to spend four more years composing his magnum opus, finally completing it around 1517. Many believe, therefore, that Discourses represents his most authentic and comprehensive political worldview, as I discuss in a chapter of the book The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age.
Discourses is so named because it is Machiavelli’s commentary on Titus Livius’s monumental History of Rome. Machiavelli uses the Discourses and Rome’s ancient history to derive enduring lessons for the practice of politics. The book is consistent with the Renaissance method in that it looks to the ancient world to recover lost wisdom and inspire new truths.
Machiavelli’s motivation for writing the book is clear. He wanted to understand how Rome rose from a small city-state on the Tiber River to dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. The Italian city-states of his time were weak and preyed upon by larger powers. There was a time, however, when an Italian state was great. What was the secret to its success?
Machiavelli’s answer is straightforward. Rome achieved glory due to its republican form of government. His review of history leads him to conclude that democracies are better able than autocracies to harness the energy of a broad cross-section of society toward national greatness. He explains (in a 2007 edition of his writings translated by Peter Constantine): “We have seen from experience that states have grown in land and wealth only if they are free: the greatness that Athens achieved within a century of liberating itself from the tyranny of Pisistratus is astonishing and even more astonishing the greatness that Rome achieved after it freed itself from its kings.”
For Machiavelli, it comes down to the “pursuit of the public interest, not private interest. … The opposite occurs when there is a prince because more often than not what he does in his own interest will harm the city and what he does for the city will harm his interests.”
Machiavelli was not making an argument about the morality or wisdom of democratic or autocratic leaders—he knew better than anyone that humans are not angels—but of institutional constraints. Democratic leaders often want to exploit their position, but they will be constrained by laws, institutions, and other branches of government. Dictators may want to be magnanimous, but since there is little standing in their way, they will always be tempted to maximize their own well-being at the expense of the nation.
Despite Machiavelli’s claims, and democracies’ stellar performances over the ages, some still argue that China’s model is superior. They argue that the Chinese Communist Party has an advantage because it can pursue steady, long-term strategies, whereas the United States cannot look past the next election and zigzags with each new administration.
Machiavelli would disagree, again pointing to institutional differences. He argues that the checks and balances in a democracy keep a country on a stable course, whereas unconstrained dictators take countries in an extreme direction and, when they change their minds, back again. He writes, “I therefore disagree with the common opinion that a populace in power is unstable and changeable.” On the contrary, he argued, “The prince … unchecked by laws will be more unstable and imprudent than a populace.”
Indeed, China had a sound strategy for years, but President Xi Jinping is throwing it out the window, cracking down on dissent, reasserting state control over China’s private sector, and antagonizing the free world with an aggressive foreign policy. The United States has been a model of stability in comparison, pursuing a successful strategy of building and defending a rules-based international system for three-quarters of a century.
China’s admirers point to its ability to take decisive measures, like pushing through major investments in infrastructure and green energy, while the U.S. Congress remains gridlocked. But Machiavelli argues that autocracy’s tendency for big, bold actions often results in big, bold mistakes. A republican system balances competing points of view and tempers ill-considered policies. As Machiavelli wrote, “One will see fewer mistakes in the populace than in the prince, and these will be less serious and easier to resolve.”
To be sure, the United States has made mistakes, in Iraq and elsewhere, but it was able to self-correct and remain the world’s premier economic, diplomatic, and military power. In contrast, major Chinese errors, like decades of pushing the disastrous one-child policy, have sunk China’s growth potential for the coming years. China will get old before it gets rich, and leading economists increasingly assess that we have already witnessed “peak China.”
What about the argument that American democracy is too fractious and polarized, whereas China’s dictator can enforce societal stability? Machiavelli welcomed societal clashes as events that contribute both to greater liberty at home and enhanced influence abroad.
In looking at the Conflict of the Orders between the patricians and the plebeians in the Roman Republic, Machiavelli writes, “If one examines the outcome of these clashes, one will find that they did not result in exile or violence … but in laws and institutions that benefited civil liberty.”
He writes that Rome could have put in place a more tranquil domestic political system, like in Sparta or Venice, but: “Had the state of Rome become more peaceful it would have become weaker, as this would have blocked the path to the greatness it achieved.” Machiavelli recommends that if one founds a republic with the aim “to expand his dominion and power, like Rome,” then “he has to follow the model of Rome and allow the tumult and popular discord to the extent he can.”
Today, Americans worry about partisan bickering, such as that currently taking place over raising the debt ceiling, but Machiavelli would argue that this institutionalized haggling and compromise is what makes the U.S. system great. It is certainly much better than a model like China’s, where a dictator can ram through controversial policies over the opposition of much of the country.
Indeed, in what might seem like a 180-degree reversal from The Prince, Machiavelli goes so far in his later work as to advise a prince to use his fleeting power to establish a republic. He writes, “Though to their everlasting honor they are able to found a republic … they turn to tyranny, not seeing how much fame, glory, honor, security, tranquility, and peace of mind they are rejecting, and how much infamy, vituperation, blame, danger, and insecurity they are bringing upon themselves.”
Discourses is certainly Machiavellian in its ethic. Republics are not praised for their intrinsic merits. He does not argue that democracy is beneficial because it protects human rights and dignity. Rather, he defends democracy because it is useful to a particular end that Machiavelli held in the highest possible regard: helping a state (and his beloved Italy) achieve international power and glory.
While the White House may not be cognizant of the Biden doctrine’s theoretical roots, Machiavelli has presaged a new generation of strategists who look to strong domestic political institutions as a fundamental source of the United States’ international power and influence.
The United States faces major challenges in its intensifying rivalry with China, to be sure, but it can rest assured that its fundamentals are better suited for the coming competition.
Even the author of history’s most famous handbook for dictators agrees.